It’s getting harder to hack it in New York.
It used to be when times were tough and you needed cash in a hurry, you dusted off your hack license and got behind the wheel of a yellow cab.
Not so fast, now.
With thousands of New Yorkers newly laid off there are more drivers than cabs. And many garage owners say they are turning would-be drivers away.
“‘Come back tomorrow, maybe tomorrow,’ is what I’m telling people who aren’t my steady drivers,” said Syed (Sunny) Zahoori, who has managed Harlem Yellow Cab for 17 years. “I’m sending people home every shift without a car. It’s a very bad situation.”
City officials say the number of New York City hack licenses are at an all-time high, with 45,805 taxicab drivers ready to hit the road.
Equally striking, the number of new hack licenses the city issued rose 19% in the past three months – when the brunt of the crisis hit – compared with the same period in 2007.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that competition to drive taxicabs has increased over the months since the economic downturn,” said city Taxi and Limousine Commissioner Matthew Daus. “When the economy is depressed we historically see an influx of drivers, but this period appears to be setting some records.”
Richard Wissak, vice president of 55 Stan Operating Corp. in Long Island City, Queens, said he started to see a surge in applicants in the past few months.
Not surprising, given a new unemployment study showing New York City has lost about 10,000 jobs since employment peaked in August, with thousands more expected.
“They’re coming from more varied backgrounds than before – real estate brokers, Wall Street people, hotel people,” said Wissak, who manages 130 cabs and 600 drivers. “We have to turn people away. You can’t show up on a lucrative Friday night and say, ‘Surprise, I’m here,’ and expect to get a car.”
One driver, who said he was a successful Realtor and mortgage broker in Queens for 20 years, said he started driving a cab a few months ago, after his business went bust. The nicely dressed father of two said he had two college tuitions to pay.
He declined to give his name, “not because I am ashamed, or embarrassed, but my children are,” he said. “We are very well-known in our community and lived a good life for so many years.”
The rapidly expanding unemployment rolls in the city are also affecting New Yorkers who traditionally get behind the wheel for extra dough at Christmas or to earn money in school.
An example is Safwat Mansour, 33, who is trying to support himself while studying to get his American medical license. Mansour was a pediatrician in Egypt, where his wife and 4-year-old daughter are living until he can send for them.
Slumped over his books in the Harlem Yellow Cab garage recently as he waited to see if he could drive the 5 p.m.-to-5 a.m. shift, Mansour said he has been dispatched home to his Queens apartment more nights than he cares to remember.
As he wistfully watched one taxi after another slowly nose out of the garage to work the rainy New York streets, Mansour said, “I’m trying to drive a cab every day but they don’t have anything for me. I have no other options. I need the money very much.”